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THE BURMESE-SIAMESE WAR OF 1765-67

Vitor Vieira Vasconcelos


PhD in Natural Sciences
Stockholm Environment Institute Asia Centre
November 2015

The Burmese-Siamese war of 1765-67 ended the four-century old Ayutthaya


kingdom, with the siege and sack of its capital. This study aims to show how geographical
factors influenced the siege, the battle strategies and the outcomes of the war.
The objective of the war, alleged by the Burmese government, was to consolidate
the control over Tenasserim coast territory, important for maritime trade (James, 2004, p.
302). In the previous Burmese-Siamese war of 1759-1760, the Burmese regained control
of the Tavoy frontier but the control over Tenasserim was still fragile and inconclusive
(Figure 1). In addition, the Burmese government claimed that the Siamese were
supporting rebels in the Burmese border regions (Baker at al., 2009, p. 21).
The war begun in 1765, when 20,000 burmese soldier invaded Northern Siamese
Kingdom, while other three southern armies of over 20,000 soldiers also came from the
South (Maung Maung Tin, 1905), in a pincer movement, as depicted in Figure 2. It was
also relevant that, conquering the northern territories, the Burmese rallied more soldiers
that marched against Ayutthaya (Phraye, 1883, p. 187,188).
Although numerically superior, the Thai defenses had much less experience on
wars, especially regarding coordination and military planning (Harvery, 1925, p. 250-253;
Phraye, 1883 p. 188-189). The Burmese already had experiences in many wars since
1740, as well as in internal civil wars, while the Thai army commanders had little battlefield
experience despite the 1760 war against the Burmese (Lieberman, 2003).

Figure 1 Routes and territories in the Burmese-Siamese War of 1759-1760. The orange
territory was conquered by Burma, but the control on the black territory was still tenuous.
The red arrows show the advance of the Burmese army and the green arrow shows the
retreat of the Burmese Army. Source: Hybernator (2010).

Figure 1 Route of the four Burmese armies in the Burmese-Siamese war of


1765-67. Source: Aristitleism (2011)

The Burmese kingdom faced a territorial dilemma in the Burmese-Siamese war,


because at the same time that they aimed at conquering Siam territory at their eastern
front, they were facing the risk of being invaded by China, which had on of the largest
armies in the world, through the Northern boundary. Actually, when the Burmese army
reached Ayutthaya, the Chinese have already started their invasion. Aware of that
situation, the Siamese planned that if they could endure the siege for a long time, the
Burmese would have to retreat in order to defend their country from the Chinese. On the
other hand, the Burmese bet that the Chinese war would be just a minor territorial dispute
and the war against Siam would bring a much vaster territory to their kingdom.
The weather and hydrological processes played a major whole in the strategies of
the siege of Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya lies in an island in the junction of Chao Phraya, Lop
Buri and Pa Sak Rivers (Figures 3 and 4), and its defenses were structured based on this
natural characteristics. In the Chao Phraya River Basin, the tropical monsoon climate
generates a rainy season that starts from May to October (Figure 5), causing wide floods
(Rungdilokroajn, 1992). The average rainfall varies from 1000 to 1500 mm/year and 85%
of it falls in the rainy season (Sayama et al., 2014).

Figure 3 Map of ancient Ayutthaya. Author: Nicolas Bellin 1752

Figure 4 Landscape of ancient Ayutthaya. Author: Johannes Vingboons, 1665.


900
Average Rainfall (mm/month)

Rainfall (mm/month)
Streamflow (million cubic metters/month)

800
700

Average Streamflow (million cubic


meters/month)

600
500
400
300
200
100
0
May Jun

Jul

Aug

Sep

Oct

Nov Dec

Jan

Feb Mar Apr Month

Figure 5 Average rainfall and streamflow of the Central Plain of the Chao Phraya
River Basin. Data from Koontanakulvong (2006).
5

The Burmese army started their march in the dry season, in order to increase
mobility (Harvey, 1925, p. 242). The southern armies avoided the coast of the Gulf of
Thailand, were they could be easily surrounded by the numerically superior Siamese
defenses (Ayeadawbon, 1961, p. 147-148).
The siege on Ayutthaya started in January 1766. The original plan of the Siamese
was to resist until the rainy season, and then the floods would hopefully make the
besiegers retreat. However, during the flood period the Burmese army did not retreat, but
got sheltered on elevated high spots. The new situation momentarily equilibrated the war
and the Thai and Burmese started to attack each other using their boats.
The Burmese army also used their boats to prevent rice supplies to enter
Ayutthaya. As a result, by the end of the rainy season the city was already running low of
supplies (Phraye, 1883, p. 189).
In the end of 1766, already in the dry season, the Burmese army built earthworks
to access the city of Ayutthaya (Harvey, 1925, p. 252) and started to dig tunnels under
the city walls, to mine them (Maung Maung Tin, 1905, p. 303). In March of 1767, the
Burmese finally invaded, burnt, sacked and destroyed the city, which was already starving
by that time.
However, at the period of Ayutthaya invasion, the Chinese army sent a new large
offensive in the north of Burmas territory, forcing the Burmese army to withdraw from
Siam kingdom (Phraye, 1883, p. 190). Without the Burmese presence, the Siamese local
chiefs started to dispute the political power over the region in a civil war. As a result from
the war, Burma retained only the control of Tenasserin coast territory.
After King Taksin reunified the Thai kingdom, the Siamese kingdom moved its
capital to Thonburi in 1767 and then to Bangkok in 1782. The ruins of Ayutthaya became
world heritage by UNESCO in 1991, and thousands of tourists that visit there every year
learn about the Burmese-Siamese war of 1765-67. The historical grief from Thai people
against the Burmese attack to Ayutthaya, was one of the main alleged motivations for the
Thai government to sponsor separatist movements of ethnic minorities located in the
Burmese borders with Thailand, during the last centuries (Myint-U, 2006, p. 299 and 308).

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